“I would not have made it on my own were it not for the men that have helped me along the way,” says Ted Rondeau, the 47-year-old businessman and Grace Brethren International Missions staffer who experienced a dramatic transformation at age 18 in a Florida jail. “It can make a profound difference for someone to take another under his wing as a disciple, mentor, and/or friend,” he stresses.
Ted’s early life reads like a true crime novel – the juvenile version. He was raised in a non-religious home and his parents divorced when he was 12. By then he was part of a gang and living on the streets. A few weeks before his 18th birthday, he and a 15-year-old runaway girl stole a car and headed for Florida. They robbed and stole along the way to finance their trip while carrying on romantic conversations about getting jobs and a house on the beach.
In Florida, they celebrated Ted’s 18th birthday on the sand at Daytona Beach. Five days later – on Christmas Day – a knock on their motel room door changed his life forever. The police had found him and now they were calling his name through a megaphone.
The police took him to the city jail where he was placed in a cell by himself.
Jail was not a new experience to him. Yet the thoughts that flowed through his head were not the usual efforts to plan his way out of the situation. He recalled a conversation with his friend Bob, who had told him about Jesus.
“It’s his fault,” Ted remembers thinking, recalling the words from his friend that he had called a curse. “He did this to me.”
With each reflection came a new concept. Throughout the afternoon, Ted’s thoughts moved from “how could Bob do this all the way from Cleveland?” to “maybe there’s something to this God thing.”
“I Need Change”
By the end of the day, Ted found himself on his knees in his jail cell. “Whoever you are,” he says he told God, “I want what Bob’s got. I don’t want to go out like this. I need change.”
He credits God’s miraculous intervention for grabbing his attention. “I never would have been thinking those thoughts,” he says, admitting, “I was not paying attention when Bob witnessed to me.”
Facing robbery charges in Daytona Beach, he was transferred to the county jail there, where he began to attend a Bible study and Sunday morning worship because “I knew that Bob would want me to do that,” recalls Ted. But he admits he had “hardly changed in personality and character” as the result of his decision.
The services were conducted by a retired Southern Baptist pastor, Rev. Sanford Oaks, the first who would pour his life into the needy young man.
After one service where Ted had been disruptive, the minister told him not to come back until he had memorized John 3:16. When Ted did, the chaplain handed him another verse to learn. It was the beginning of a six-month discipleship program with the Rev. Oaks, who would frequently come to Ted’s cell following church services to talk.
Eventually, Ted received a three-year prison sentence and was assigned to Apalachee Correctional Institution (ACI) on the north edge of Florida. Before the young man could leave south Florida, Rev. Oaks called the chaplain’s office at the prison and asked them to “look out for me.”
Ted later learned it was an unusual request from a minister, who apparently was well-known throughout the state. “He didn’t usually do that,” he says, tears welling in his eyes. “He made a project out of me.”
Establishing Deep Roots
Rev. Oaks was the first in a long line of men who Ted says has invested their lives in him. At ACI, Ted found chaplains David Pipping and David Ring (a Grace Theological Seminary graduate), who both helped him establish deep roots in his new-found faith.
“There was an awesome core group of believing men there,” he says of his prison experience. “It was the best experience of (Christian) body life that I’ve ever had.”
Chaplain Ring encouraged him to apply to Grace College upon his release.
“When I got out, I knew I had a lot of catching up to do,” he says. “I wanted to go to Bible school and I needed a wife who would help me settle down and provide some balance in life.”
He found both on the Winona Lake campus, although his start at the college was admittedly rocky as he faced a panel of well-meaning men who weren’t quite sure how to approach a convicted felon who wanted to register as a student.
“I finally told them I needed to find a place where I could settle in to study the Bible and some men would mentor me,” he recalls. They grudgingly allowed him to enroll.
At Grace, he also met Dawn Froese, the sister of his first roommate. They were married 11 months later and now have two daughters, Rachel and Andrea. (Andrea was married this summer to Kyle Boley.)
He knows he’s broken all the stereotypes of convicted felons. According to a 2002 U.S. Justice Department study, 67.5 percent of offenders were arrested for a new crime within three years of their release and 46.9 percent were reconvicted in state or federal court for a new crime.
He recalls the guard who said to him as he walked out of prison, “I’ll see you in six months.”
Even then, he was focused on never re-offending. “By the grace of God, I intend to walk forever from this place,” he recalls thinking.
His journey has been more than one of moral correction; it’s been a spiritual battle.
“Satan gets his claws deep into people when they go down those paths,” he says, noting the layer upon layer of “yuck” that ex-prisoners find.
He is focused on exposing what he calls the biggest lie of all – your past does not define who you are now.
“God says you can be a new creation,” he responds. “God says you can be whiter than snow,” noting that some of the greatest bondage can be found in feeling that one is a second class citizen because of the past.
He continues to be amazed at God’s grace. “Nothing I enjoy today is deserved,” he admits. “I shouldn’t even be alive!”
He lives daily in the truth that there are no first or second class citizens in God’s family. “No matter how good or bad a person has been,” he emphasizes, “we are all equally blessed as redeemed children of God.”